Pittsburgh and Mumbai
Guest columnist

Pittsburgh and Mumbai

Jim Busis
An AJC delegation lights yahrzeit candles at Mumbai’s Chabad House in 2010, two years after the terror attack.
(Photo by Jim Busis)
An AJC delegation lights yahrzeit candles at Mumbai’s Chabad House in 2010, two years after the terror attack. (Photo by Jim Busis)

This week marks both the one-month anniversary of the anti-Semitic terrorist attack on the worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue building and the 10-year anniversary of the anti-Semitic terrorist attack on Jews in Mumbai, India. Mumbai has been on my mind ever since that awful Saturday morning one month ago. For me, the two events are inextricably tied together in the unhealthy mélange of irrational hatred of Jews and of Israel that comingle so easily in the far-right and the far-left.

For those who dimly remember the events that took place in Mumbai 10 years ago here is a brief recap. In August 1947, as the British were preparing to leave their mandate of Palestine and partition it into a Jewish and an Arab state, the British left their colony of India and partitioned it into two states, secular India and Muslim Pakistan. In the communal violence and war between India and Pakistan which followed, more than 1 million people were killed and 15 million became refugees. Most importantly for the current state of affairs, the two states of Jammu and Kashmir were effectively partitioned between India and Pakistan during the war and have remained an unresolved issue ever since.

In the years since, India and Pakistan have fought three more wars; and in between these wars the Pakistani government and military have continued the conflict by either actively supporting or turning a blind eye to terrorist organizations that have conducted attacks not only in Jammu and Kashmir but in other parts of India as well. On Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008, 10 highly trained men from the Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba landed in Mumbai by sea and split into teams to attack a variety of pre-selected targets. It wasn’t until three days later that the last terrorist was killed or captured, leaving behind at least 165 dead and 300 wounded.

All the terrorists’ targets were well known and crowded locales in Mumbai, with one exception: the Chabad House. Intercepted radio transmissions from the terrorists’ handlers in Pakistan revealed that they believed the lives of Jews were worth 50 times the lives of non-Jews. In their twisted ideology, hatred of India, Israel and Jews in general were all hopelessly intermingled.

In November 2008, I was working at the American Jewish Committee in Washington as the director of its Asia Pacific Institute. India was one of my assigned countries. AJC’s India representative lived in Mumbai and reported to me, and I had been in Mumbai and met with the local Jewish community.

On that Wednesday I was driving back to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving when I received a phone call from my representative in Mumbai saying that something bad was happening there. Over the next 24 hours the unprecedented scope of the terrorist attack gradually became clear, including the attack on the Chabad House in which hostages were taken. My Thanksgiving became subsumed by Mumbai. I was constantly on the phone with the State Department, the Indian government and others, working through options to rescue the hostages at the Chabad House, getting updates from Mumbai and giving briefings to AJC.

In the end, all our efforts came to naught. Although some people at the Chabad House did manage to escape in the first stage of the attack, the six hostages, including the rebbetzin who was six months pregnant, were murdered before Indian commandos could free them. (A report would later conclude that in all likelihood, the six were slaughtered either in the opening moments of the attack or soon thereafter, and that the terrorists had no intention of keeping anyone alive.)

Two years later I led another AJC delegation to Mumbai. We visited the Chabad House, which basically had been left as it was after the attack, because Chabad was still negotiating with the Indian government over security arrangements to relaunch the facility. We saw the horrendous damage of those awful three days. I haven’t been inside the Tree of Life building, but I imagine it must be similar.

In the days and weeks that followed the attack here in Pittsburgh, my mind kept returning to Mumbai. Besides the emotional impact on me, I can’t help but draw the ideological connections between the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a Chabad House in India. Across 10 years and almost 8,000 miles, across different cultures and histories, the one constant is anti-Semitism. Violent, murderous anti-Semitism, which begins with ideological claims against the Jews and the Jewish state. Often the hatred starts with something or someone else — an immigration policy or India — but then it comes back to the Jews.

Like many others in our community, I participated in a variety of media interviews after the massacre at the Tree of Life building. Perhaps because I was a newspaper publisher and not a rabbi, I was always asked the same questions. Wasn’t this the result of President Trump’s rhetoric? Wasn’t this the result of lax U.S. gun laws? I thought back to Mumbai and other times and places, and I gave the same answer: No, this shooting was first and foremost about anti-Semitism. It exists on the far-right, and it exists on the far-left, and all too frequently it leads to murderous attacks on innocent Jews. PJC

Jim Busis is the publisher and CEO of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

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